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Primatology

Updated on November 24, 2010

As a child, I had a number of ambitions. One of them was to cross-foster a chimpanzee in a human household, along with a child of my own, and to enable him to learn language and acquire literacy. It took many years before I was able to launch Project Bow. I came into primatology through the back door. My Ph.D., from Rice University, is in linguistics. This is an unusual specialization, even for those who work in ape language studies.

Primatolagists come from many different disciplines. Anthropology, zoology, psychology and animal science are just a few of the specializations that are common among those who study primates.

If you are interested in entering this field, here is some information that you may find useful.

Primatologists study primates. Primates include, but are not limited to, the great apes. Orangutans, gorillas, chimpanzees, bonobos and homo sapiens are numbered among the surviving great apes. Besides man, there were once many other species of hominids, but they have all died out. Non-human members of the great ape family are in danger of meeting that same fate.

My personal involvement is with chimpanzees. In the wilds of Africa, their natural habitat is being encroached upon, and their numbers are dwindling. In the United States, where I live, there are groups of chimpanzees whose ancestors were brought here several generations ago. They, too, are under attack, as they are being forcibly rounded up and placed in "sanctuaries", where they are not allowed to reproduce.

Many activists believe that chimpanzees should live only in their native habitat, and much of their concerted effort is being directed at making sure that they do not breed in captivity. However, the political situation in Africa is unstable, and it may be that the best hope for the chimpanzee as a species is to be accepted and respected in alternative environments, where they can be allowed to thrive.

Ethologists versus Experimental Primatologists

Primatologists can be divided roughly into two groups, based on their mode of operation and scientific philosophy. Ethologists study primates in the wild, following from a distance and recording their every move, but they try as much as possible not to interact directly with their subjects. They believe we can learn the most about primates by observing what they do when left to their own devices. Experimental primatologists interact with primates through a series of experiments which are designed to test the subject's cognitive and linguistic abilities in a controlled environment.

Like ethologists, many experimental primatologists also keep their distance from their subjects, avoiding forming relationships and emotional bonds, feeling that the experimenter must maintain objectivity in order to get viable test results.

I belong to a small splinter group among primatologists who seek to form relationships with their subjects and to find out about their way of thinking through engagement in an environment that is culturally enriched.

In later hubs, I will discuss my own work, as well as that of some of my colleagues.

If you are interested in finding opportunities in the field of primatology, here is an excellent resource:

When Sword Met Bow

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    • Aya Katz profile imageAUTHOR

      Aya Katz 

      5 years ago from The Ozarks

      Thanks, Melissa. I'm happy to have discovered your writing as well.

      The issue of legal rights for non-humans is a complex one, because intelligence in and of itself does not equate to responsible behavior. As we have seen with humans who are quite intelligent but cannot live unsupervised in our society, we may find that the same is true for many very intelligent non-humans.

      I am glad that you distinguish intelligence from having a cooperative personality, because in the case of chimpanzees, that is an issue that many scientists and activists do not seem to have a good handle on.

      If you are interested in day to day life with Bow, I have a completely non-scientific blog that I keep, called Notes from the Pens. There I write about life with Bow in terms of ordinary challenges and rewards.

      http://notesfromthepens.blogspot.com/

    • Melissa A Smith profile image

      Melissa A Smith 

      5 years ago from New York

      Hi, so happy to have discovered your channel and research. I am thoroughly interested in the subject of human and animal language and communication because I feel they are linked to consciousness and awareness. Sometime in the near future I was going to publish a bunch of hubs on the subject, most with dolphins for now. I would value your input on them, as I find these questions very important. As you know many people are critical of keeping animals in captivity. They equate it on the moral scale of human slavery or imprisoning them for no crime. There are going to be more intensive efforts by these groups to make animals like dolphins and your chimpanzee 'non-human persons' so that they can maintain the right of bodily integrity.

      I think the fundamental question should originate from whether or not non-humans are within our same psychological condition or mindset, which I think in humans is shaped by our complex language abilities which I feel aren't matched with any other animal species. Many researchers put dolphin intelligence over that of chimps, but I'm wondering if this is due to their personalities? Most researchers study Tursiops truncatus in research because these do the best in captivity yet many other species do not have comparable interest in humans. Anyway overall I am examining the contention that our current treatment of great apes, elephants, and cetaceans is a violation of our moral code because of the characteristics that these animals possess. I also understand that if that were to be 'true', what does this say about the treatment of animals that supposedly do not?

      I'm also interested in reading how you maintain your chimp, you should write a hub about that. I look forward to exploring your work more.

    • Aya Katz profile imageAUTHOR

      Aya Katz 

      10 years ago from The Ozarks

      Thanks, Samina.

    • profile image

      Samina Farooqi 

      10 years ago

      I am an ardent animal lover and since childhood always wanted to be close to animals. And its a saying.... always dare to dream and your dreams come true!

      So in my case when I was studying the chimpanzees in Indian zoo I always had this feeling of holding and cuddling the chimp, lying with a chimp, feeding a chimp , list is endless, for many it sounds weird but I always wanted but was not sure if ever I could get my dream true... holding a chimp, sleeping with a chimp.. huh!! And at last my this wish came true when I got this offer of summer internship for Chimpanzee project from Aya Katz..... whew !! One can imagine my thrill and when things are destined to happen.. they are !!!

      On June 20, 2005 I was at Katz's household playing with Bow then he was two and half year old cute chimp in pyjamas and diapers.. a sight to behold! I was the first Intern for Project Bow. Very quickly I developed a wonderful rapport with Bow (as I usually gain trust from wild animals) and since then my Dream was true as I used to play with him, hold him, make him sleep in my lap or sometimes in my bed, changed his diapers, groom him, needless to say , everything I imagined. I used to tell him stories and found that he really listened to my stories with sheer interest, sometimes gazing into my eyes as if asking.."so, Samina, what next?"

      It was the most wonderful time with Bow and Katzs. Even during my Internship program I got very friendly with Aya Katz's daughter, Sword, she was quite attached to me and I used to sometimes find sort of jealousy between brother sister, usually on saturdays when as per my schedule I used to have my early morning session with Bow and Sword watching angriliy and anxiously outside the glass door for me to finish up soon and join her.

      It was a three month summer Internship program and I returned back home but because of this hubpage I am in touch about Bow's development. Thanks Aya

    • Aya Katz profile imageAUTHOR

      Aya Katz 

      10 years ago from The Ozarks

      Thanks for your comment, Level1diet. You seem to have had some interesting experiences! Did you form any relationships with chimpanzees and other primates you met there?

      When you write your hub, I hope you won't refer to chimpanzees as monkeys, though. They are great apes, just like us, and like us, they have no tail.

      As for chimpanzees being much stronger than humans, that is certainly true. Bow is six and a half years old, and stronger than I am. I can't physically force him to do anything he doesn't wish to do. But we have a relationship of long standing, and that is very important.

    • level1diet profile image

      level1diet 

      10 years ago from Albuquerque, NM

      Aya, your work with primates is fascinating, and maybe a bit scary. Chimps are extremely strong, which I'm sure you know all too well. They have a violent temper, and can do some real damage to things and people when they get excited. This especially true for the adult chimps, who are as strong as several very strong men all added up together.

      Back in 1965 I had the pleasure to work with some of our most dedicated and productive early astronauts -- the chimps at Holloman Air Force Base's primate collection, where research was being done to help design environmental systems for the OTHER astronauts with less body hair, who were to come along later...

      Holloman's primate zoo was the largest collection of these creatures outside of Africa at the time. During those years, they had hundreds and hundreds of larger primates, as well as many smaller related monkeys.

      I was just a student intern working for NASA in the testing facility for the Environmental Test Laboratories. We tested the Apollo space deceleration couch by shaking it violently on a big machine to see what it took to cause it to break due to harmonic stresses, and we tested many computer and electronic or pneumatic space craft control systems under vacuum, high and cold temperatures, vibration and so on.

      The chimps were used to see if it was possible to save an astronaut's life after sudden, explosive decompression that might follow penetration of the life capsule by a meteor or by a crack around a door, etc.

      It had been thought that men would die, as their blood boiled in their veins. Speculative fiction in the movies depicted bloody foam filling up spaceship's control rooms when they would suddenly lose their air due to an accident, as the room became a vacuum.

      Sounds silly nowadays, when movies only show people being swept out into space with their mouths open in a silent scream. But in 1965 we thought differently.

      The chimps helped us prove that men COULD survive sudden decompression, and that it was worthwhile to build-in a system to save human operator lives by recompressing the capsule, if possible.

      I'm writing a hub about this, which you'll see soon, something like "Monkeys in Space! How primates helped us design our early spacecraft."

      You should read it. It will undoubtedly make you mad, as it did me to see their pain. But, you'll be glad to know that the Air Force and NASA no longer uses primates. They gave up their collection and tore down the 'zoo' at Holloman. The chimps and higher primates were sent to zoos around the country, and some are still alive in those new and safer homes. 

    • Aya Katz profile imageAUTHOR

      Aya Katz 

      10 years ago from The Ozarks

      No, Bow is a common chimpanzee (pan troglodytes). Are bonobos more intelligent than common chimpanzees? It's hard to say. I think the difference is more a matter of temperament, rather than intelligence.

    • mistyhorizon2003 profile image

      Cindy Lawson 

      10 years ago from Guernsey (Channel Islands)

      Wow, that is fantastic and must be a great experience for both you and your daughter. Is Bow a Bonobo Chimp, as I know they are supposed to be the most intelligent of all chimps?

    • Aya Katz profile imageAUTHOR

      Aya Katz 

      10 years ago from The Ozarks

      Yes, that did happen. It was in 1930-31, and the parents were Winthrop and Luella Kellogg. They were both psychologists. Their son was named Donald, and the chimp, a female, was named Gua. Gua was rejected at sixteen months, due to the parents' concerns about their son's development. During the 1970s a number of cross-fostering studies were done with chimpanzees bred in Norman Oklahoma. Some of the more famous ones are Washoe, Lucy, and Nim Chimpsky. There is a new biography of Nim Chimpsky out, which sheds a lot of light on what happened in those experiments.

      Roger Fouts, who was involved with Washoe, later concluded that because of the high rate of abandonment, such projects are unfair to chimpanzees and should banned. I agree that it is unpardonable to abandon a child (human or chimp) that one has made a commitment to.

      However, not all projects involving enculturation end badly. Sue Savage-Rumbaugh has done some excellent work with bonobos, allowing them to have access to both bonobo and human cultures. That's what I want for us, too.

      Bow, my adopted chimpanzee son is six years old now. I have been rearing him along with my daughter since he was a month old. My daughter is 2 1/2 years older than him, and I think that makes it easier than if they were the same age.

    • mistyhorizon2003 profile image

      Cindy Lawson 

      10 years ago from Guernsey (Channel Islands)

      I saw a programme on Sky where a scientist did bring a chimp into the same household as his baby son, but instead of the chimp learning from the child, the opposite happened and the child began to copy the chimp. The scientist was so horrified he got rid of the chimp. This really is an interesting Hub though and I would love to work with primates if I had the chance.

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